What Is Dramatic Literature?
( Originally Published 1913 )
Illustrated by "The Admirable Crichton" and " What Every Woman Knows" BY JAMES M. BARRIE
MR. BARRIE'S best comedies are good examples of what is meant by dramatic literature in the more exact understanding of the term. So many plays, especially in English, are either drama (action) and not literature, or literature and not drama, that we are unaccustomed to the criticism of dramatic literature in the sense understood by the French.
It is easy to be voluble about the purely dramatic side — at least we all have favorite actors and actresses, and are full of ideas about the best interpretation of great parts. The merely literary view, too, is easy to get, for often we may, if we like, read a play in book form, and bring to bear upon it critical instincts that have been sharpened upon literature in general.
But in estimating a play, or in comparing one play with another, to keep both action and style in view, and look on both impartially, is not easy. Yet this is what study of the drama means.
Mr. Barrie's best plays are " The Admirable Crichton " (1903) and " What Every Woman Knows " (1908). They have never been published (this fore-stalls the literary view), and they are not so new upon the stage as to be unfamiliar, nor so old as to be forgotten. It may be interesting to compare them for a moment, and observe some of the subtle qualities which make them worthy to be called dramatic literature.
They are alike in being so entertaining and exhilarating as to ensnare the heedless, and yet so richly ideaed and so full of the thoughts that breed thought as to' satisfy the judicious. Each play consists of four acts, constructive, cumulative, adroitly related to one another, and firmly imbedded in the play as a whole.
Now, a four-act play which is evenly good through-out is a rare treat. Too frequently, in drama of such makes, we are obliged to tolerate one act (it may be any one of the four) which is either so poor as to fall below the level of the whole, or so detached as to be a mere episode. As far as keeping shape is concerned, the four-act play seems harder to make than the play, now so common, with only three acts.
These comedies, then, are noteworthy for being well sustained. In each the climax is at the close of the third act, and at various points there are fine panto-mimic crises. The time of action in each case is several years. Striking scenic effects are employed, the earlier play having three stage sets and the later play four.
In spite of superficial likenesses, however, there is the most refreshing unlikeness in concept and intellectual drift. Barrie appears to be in no danger of self-repetition. We never mark in his plays (as in Pinero's, for example) the reappearance, under thin disguise, of character, incident or device. He is always unmistakably Barrie, but each new play takes us to fresh dramatic fields and new intellectual pastures.
The line of action of these two comedies is as different as their spirit. A descriptive sub-title for " The Admirable Crichton " would be " It Cannot Be Done." So the play, after making a wide excursion in time and place and hap (shipwreck on an island, you remember, two years of exile, and life à la Robinson Crusoe) turns full circle and appropriately ends where it began. We realize that after the last curtain comes down things will go on much as before the first curtain went up. Here is completion of the dramatic design, but with-out finality. This is always good structure, especially for comedy. Events in life do not often, it is true, return upon themselves and come to nothing. But they have a ridiculous tendency to result in far less than is expected. So an indeterminate ending to a vastly ex-citing experience is of good comedic effect upon the stage.
" What Every Woman Knows," on the contrary, does come to something. The whole play is built upon the idea of accomplishing the well nigh impossible. The feat of making John Shand laugh is dramatic triumph enough for one comedy, even if nothing else happened. So in this play the final act is far separated from the first in time and place, and the end is sharply contrasted with the beginning. The action having opened in the humble abode of the Wylies, closes after eight eventful years and many transitions in the beautiful country seat of the Comtesse de la Briere. Nor are the Mr. and Mrs. Shand of the final scene the same John and Maggie who make the preposterous contract at the outset. It is curious to observe, however, that the receptive and adaptable Maggie has changed far less than the self-centered John — that " extraordinary queer " character whom nobody understands but himself. Indeed, the dénouement lets in so much light upon Mr. Shand's inner consciousness that we imagine, what with his newly acquired sense of humor, and his partial realization of what his wife has been doing, he must be permanently transformed. And our speculation as to what he may be likely to do next opens the play out into the future, and saves it also from a theatrical flourish of finality.
The best pantomimic effect in the earlier play is at the end of the second act — that famous scene with the kettle of broth as the center of interest. Crichton has been dismissed for arrogance. But notice to leave on a desert island being rather ineffective, there is nothing for the gentry to do but to go away and leave him. Unfortunately, however, they are half starved; and as the former butler has a savory stew cooking over the fire, they all creep back one by one, Lady Mary last, subdued to the most perfect social equality by the pangs of hunger. So profound is the pantomimic meaning that not a word is needed — and that is high praise for any scene in any play.
In " What Every Woman Knows " there is much good pantomime, notably the game of chess at the be-ginning of the play, No introduction could be more effective; and really, since any audience is apt to lose so many first lines of a first act, it is strange that panto-mime at that point is not used more frequently. Clearly it would not always be possible; but a little ingenuity counts for a great deal before the action gets under way, and so a lineless opening might more often be made to serve.
The climaxes in these delightful comedies can hardly be called pantomimic. But in the earlier play, when the boom of the gun is heard, what the hero does is more impressive than what he says. His exclamation, "Bill Crichton 's got to play the game," is exciting, but it is when he pulls the lever and the beacons blaze out their signal to the receding ship that the real climax is reached.
As for the other play, nothing that Maggie says, though she never speaks but to the point, is so eloquent as that moment when, without a word, she drops her knitting from her passive hands. No dramatist understands better than Barrie the old dictum that what is shown has higher value on the stage than what is said.
In both plays there are good illustrations of how stage scenes may be made to economize explanation and exposition. After the second act of " The Admirable Crichton" there is an interval of two years. But the moment the curtain rises on the third act, disclosing the interior of the tent, so much that has meantime happened is revealed to the eye that there is no need of tiresome narration or reminiscence. And a like effect is created when the curtain goes up on Shand's committee rooms in Glasgow. Though six years have elapsed between acts, the posters and signs tell us at once, without any long " bridging over " speech, that John is near the first goal of his ambition.
Even hasty examination such as the above shows that in these comedies there is an inextricable mingling of drama and literature, two quite different forces, which may not safely be considered apart.